Showing posts with label essay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label essay. Show all posts

30.3.18

On Knowing Nothing and Why I am Embarrassed that I am a Know-it-All

My worst trait is that I am a know-it-all. I like to know things, and I feel amiss if I am not the one explaining. It’s an embarrassing trait. But I admit it. Awareness is half the battle, right? I like to know things. I am obsessive that way. 
Dicken's Mr. M'Choakumchild in the Age of No Child Left Behind

© 2000 Hearst Newspapers
Because I am a know-it-all, you’d think I’d be a sore loser. But I am not. I do not like to know stuff, so I can somehow feel superior to others. I just wish to know things and I will gladly listen if you have something new to teach me. 

As a teenager, I would get into bitter arguments with my parents about the minutiae of a such-and-such fact. Is a shark a fish? Why does Louisiana have the Napoleonic code? I think my parents thought I was just being a know-it-all. I am pretty sure my mom thought I was arrogant most of the time. I liked to read, and I wanted to find someone to bounce off ideas. When you're a kid, your audience options are limited.


14.2.12

Reflecting On Despair According to Søren Kierkegaard (and Others)

“Infinitude’s despair, therefore, is the fantastic, the unlimited for the self is healthy and free from despair only when, precisely by having despaired, it rests transparently in God.” — (Søren Kiekegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, pg. 30)

Must we despair in order that we don’t despair? 

     Must we suffer, so as not to suffer? We find ourselves in a paradox, stuck between finitude and infinitude, wanting to die and not wanting to die. Life can be artificial oftentimes — death has already struck us a blow, a death that is more internal and threatens the infinite more than any physical death could. Every day we face ourselves; we face our possibilities, sometimes cringing and other times barely aware that we are sad.
    Søren Kierkegaard experienced despair. The words he writes on the subject reek of subjectivity; you can almost taste-smell-touch Kierkegaard’s despair as you read a work like the Sickness Unto Death.
    Kierkegaard never claims to be someone whose been “transparent before God”; he probably never was “healthy and free” from despair — for he says all of us whether we are Christian or not, have despaired or continue to despair.
    There are probably many events in Kierkegaard’s life that disrupted his own synthesis of infinitude and infinitude.

Kierkegaard's Failed Romance with Regina Olsen
    Kierkegaard fell in love with a young woman named Regina Olsen. There is no doubt that many of the works produced by Kierkegaard were a result of the relationship he had with her.
    They were planning marriage until Kierkegaard decided to end the relationship. It seems when great happiness is evident, or the possibility of happiness is on the horizon, despair settles in deepest. In the Moviegoer Walker Percy’s character Binx Bolling makes that clear in the Moviegoer when he says, “whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise” (121).
    Kierkegaard had straddled that possibility and it made him afraid; he didn’t fall out of love with Regina Olsen (he loved her dearly — till his death). When he broke off the engagement with her he made sure she did not suffer embarrassment. In Kierkegaard's time, if a man breaks off an engagement with a woman, the woman is stigmatized. Kierkegaard prevented that stigma so he forced her to break off the engagement with him. He made sure friends and family saw him as the villain and Regina as the victim. He quit seeing her; he quit sending flowers; he quit courting her.
    Why did he do this? Obviously they would have been happy. What caused him to end such a relationship? Kierkegaard was afraid that if he married Regina Olsen, he would be unable to continue writing — he considered himself unsuited for the married life (Coppleston, Vol. 7, p. 338) — he was a man with goals and ideas and sealing a marriage, he felt, would prevent him from achieving his philosophical goals.
    He alludes to the engagement in his writings; one gets the sense that he regretted his decision — that he gave up on a beautiful thing. He writes of the relationship, pseudonymously, in a wry, novel-like section of Either/Or or also called The Seducer’s Diary.
    A few years before his engagement to Regina Olsen, he seriously considered suicide. Kierkegaard grew up in a strict, religious family. His father was a melancholic, religious man who believed that God’s wrath was imminent. The father’s dire religious overtones hung over the family like a doomsday saying. Kierkegaard's father read to his son stories from the bible from an illustrated tome that depicted graphically the violence of the crucifixion. I think the young Kierkegaard was seared by those images of a brutally beaten Christ hanging on a cross.

The Theme of Despair in the book The Sickness Unto Death
    The central story of Sickness Unto Death is an interpretation of the rising of Lazarus by Christ recounted in Chapter 11 of John's Gospel. Lazarus, the brother of Martha and the Mary who anointed the body of Jesus with oil and dried his feet with her hair, is ill and near death. Kierkegaard reads the story as an explanation of despair. Christ says Lazarus's sickness is not unto death (John 11:4). The disciples misunderstand Jesus to mean physical death, but Jesus means spiritual death, the death caused by despair. Raising Lazarus from the dead is the greatest "sign" Christ performs in John's Gospel. In fact, it is the culmination event of many minor "signs" Jesus performs. Kierkegaard reads the story as an allegory on despair. Raising Lazarus from the dead is meant to serve a point: that death won't kill Lazarus. To raise him from the dead only for him to die, physically later on, is to suggest that Christ has saved him from the death caused by inner despair.
On a Recent Visit to Copenhagen I Visted Kierkegaard
    I wrote on Kierkegaard as an undergraduate philosophy major. I went to Copenhagen to visit his grave, which turned out to be a great pun for in Danish graveyard is "kierkegaard" so when I asked someone where was the grave of Kierkegaard they thought I was asking where was the churchyard. It is fitting that Kierkegaard's name means graveyard.
   On my way to Copenhagen I took a ferry from Germany to Denmark in a train. The train enters the ferry via built-in tracks. It was late at night. I was sitting next to a German girl who was going to Denmark for a summer job. Since we were talking to each other, when the train boarded the ferry, we both went on deck to look out into the sea. I remember looking down into the dark wine waters and feeling vertigo and this sudden desire to plunge into the vortex.
   Perhaps what Kierkegaard was trying to say is that we can die way before our actual deaths. Feeling the vertigo made me feel alive but at the same time hearkened a baleful note to my mortality. I recognized the horrific contingency of my being, that I won't last long. Kierkegaard's point was that we succumb to death long before we physically die in a kind of covering up of our selves. Famously Kierkegaard defines the self as a relation that is in relationship with its own self. Sometimes this relational structure becomes muddled, scratched over, hidden and we become lost to our self. We are unmoored from our relationship to our very self.
    The greatest form of despair is the despair that does not even know it is in despair.
    To know I am in despair is the first step to not be in despair. In other words, to know that I am born, introduced to this world without any instruction, or even with my permission, so I recognize that I am not at home in this world. To be in despair is to kid myself into thinking that I am at home in the world when really I am not.
  Heidegger was influenced by Kierkegaard. What Heidegger has to say about anxiety is closely mirrored to Kierkegaard's theory of the self. Dasein (Heidegger's neologism for the human being, which means literally being-there) is a being whose very being becomes an issue for it. This is very close to what Kierkegaard was trying to say. And I think it is what Walker Percy was trying to say in all of his novels: we are strangers in a strange land.
   That night on the ferry to Denmark I wanted to jump into the void for it promised an escape. Not that I had any external reason to be in despair. At that time in my life, I was feeling pretty good. But the recognition came to me that what defines the human being is despair.
The Mass of Men Leads Lives of Quiet Desperation
   I think it was Thoreau who said the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I think he was onto something. And so was I at that moment. Since then I have forgotten. Only to find my notes on Kierkegaard in a notebook from my college days which I reconstructed to write this blog post. The me of 2000 when I was 20 is sending a message to me of 2012 at 32. I think that is how it works. There is no essential self. Just fragments. Thank god we can communicate.

24.7.11

Repost: The Relationship of Truth and Relativism by Marian Larman, O.S.B.

I came across this essay in my personal files. It is written by Marian Larman, a Benedictine priest who taught philosophy. This essay has a personal import for me. Larman wrote it during the last year of his life. He had retired as pastor of a small church in Saint Benedict, Louisiana. Because of declining health, he moved into the infirmary at the monastery where I was a monk. On some mornings I would visit the infirmary. Two parakeets inhabited a birdcage in the solarium, a rectangular room that allowed in plenty of sunlight. Father Marian would sit in the solarium reading a newspaper or a newly acquired book on Saint Thomas Aquinas. While an ardent Thomist, he did not hold to the belief that there we through faith we have access to an overarching truth. There may be an absolute truth but finite beings are limited to what we can know. We would have quiet conversations sometimes. I mainly listened as he told me about his ideas. Father Augustine, who took care of the infirmary allowed Father Marian to write in the infirmary. He acquired a small manual typewriter on which he wrote the following essay. While he equates truth to adequation in the following piece, a position I find difficult to swallow, since I have difficulty with the concept of absolute truth (especially in regards to theology), the following essay is a fine example of a Thomist attempting to square his views with relativism and the charge that all is merely subjective and everyone has their own version of truth (or, the verso, all is objective and all there is absolute truth). I have simply typed his essay as it appeared in the typewritten manuscript.

18.12.10

On Wonder

 An essay by Greig Roselli reprinted from Canon Magazine

In the Theatetus Plato writes, “philosophy begins in wonder” (155d). The Greek is θαῦμα which translates as “puzzle,” “problem,” or simply, a “marvel”. The definition suggests to wonder is “to solve a conundrum.” In this sense, θαῦμα carries with it an active puzzle-solving. Wonder is open to activity but is also somehow passive in its reflection. I say this because to wonder means both to reflect, to bring a thought into motion, and also, the active thinking of the thought, which we call roughly, the idea. The quip, then, “Philosophy begins in wonder,” seems to suggest a something that originates in a person who wonders, like the birth of an idea, and rises to the surface  call it consciousness, and it is there, an eureka moment, “ah ha!” I got it! Archimedes sat in his tub, noticed that the water level rose equal to the volume of his own body. Before Archimedes’s discovery, an object’s displacement of water was a mystery, something to be puzzled out. Is wonder then what allows us to rise above Baudelaire’s animal who is stupid in his sleep? Wonder, then, is the origin of an eureka moment. Isn’t this what we do when we attempt to puzzle out questions of being?
Archimedes in the bathtub, "Eureka!" image credit:strongnet

9.10.10

Book Review: Virginia Woolf as Philosopher for the People

Three Guineas Journal
In this post, I offer a review of Virginia Woolf’s searing report on the devastating effects of war. It's her most articulate contribution to the history of ideas because it articulates quite well, and cogently – in the manner of classical rhetoric  ideas about pacifism, women, and war. Having lived through the First World War, Woolf dreads the possibility of another one to come . . .
     
Three Guineas is a bitter discourse on the prevention of war, and defense of philanthropy, and women; it is also an attack on the growing hegemonic power afloat in Europe before the Second World War; it is an older and hardened view, distinct from the more playful A Room of One’s Own she had written earlier, which is more about the sexuality of women, the spirit of women. However, it touches on some of the issues she expounds upon in Three Guineas. In a way, it is like a sequel; actually, I think this is how Woolf intended it. Three Guineas comes out of the work she did on The Years, her most famous novel, about the Pargiter family, their history from the 19th century to Woolf’s present day.
      Woolf published the book Three Guineas out of her own Hogarth press. I wonder how many people actually “got it” or even took the time to read the book? I wonder how many people actually read A Room of One’s Own and “got it”? The slim volume deserves a second look. I think Woolf is important to intellectual thought. Woolf is part of what I call intellectual talk within intellectual circles and also, by her own admission, critical to the public sphere of intellectualism. Woolf attempts to speak to everyman. She is a philosopher for the people. Three Guineas is filled with harsh condemnations. She accuses society of having an infantile fixation (134-135); of the widening gap between the public and private sectors and the use of clothing to deceive young men into joining the war effort (14). I find Woolf to be candid in this book. I think she states some hard arguments. The difficulty of the book is following Woolf’s train of thought; Woolf reads like an autodidact, which she was, and her arguments sometimes feel more passionate than systematically thought out; but, I reason, she has spent so much time, energy and words on these issues; I feel ill at ease following her passion because I sense she doesn’t have to convince me; I know she must be right!
     One significant contribution she gives in this work is that she nuances the stance of feminism. Feminist thought is not dead even though women can now vote and work, Woolf argues. We can’t stop now as if everything is equal and normal for women. As if women and men are the same. There will still be Creons abusing Antigones. But, Woolf is not fatalistic. She does see that something must be done. There is a web site I found about an organization founded in 1993 called the Three Guineas Organization. It helps women and girls through education, similar to the groups that were writing to Woolf asking for aid.
     I say Three Guineas is a bitter discourse because it is written not as a romp through Oxford and the British Library, but an attempt to ask the hard questions and a realization of forces greater than our control. Woolf intuits the horror of the World War and the seeming repetition of war, the misuse of women throughout history; “Things repeat themselves it seems. Pictures and voices are the same today as they were 2,000 years ago” (141). I think she sees Hitler and Fascism for what it really was: not for true freedom and liberty but rather threatening to Western Civilization. Of course, war is threatening. But she asks: how does war deplete society? Why are women asking for money? How does war take away resources, thus eroding the cornerstone of liberal arts education, the workforce, and liberty in general? Why are these three different organizations, even asking for money in the first place? Will a guinea also help them? Shouldn’t society be asking why they must plead for money in the first place? Why are the administrators of a woman’s college living under deplorable conditions, begging? In a letter to Woolf, an accountant for the college asks, “Will you send a subscription to [our society] in order to help us to earn our living? Failing money … any gift will be acceptable – books, fruit, or cast-off clothing that can be sold in a bazaar (41)”.
     Woolf wants to know why is this school asking for money? Haven’t women been liberated for the past twenty years? She includes a response to such a request for a subscription, asking, “How can it be, we repeat? Surely there must be some very grave defect, of common humanity, of common justice, or of common sense” (41-42).
     I noticed in this book that Woolf is aware of the influence of photography (at least 11 and 142). She writes about the horrors of war recorded by the camera. This book is timely today because we can trace how the influence of the camera has made an arc to the television set, to the Internet. We are inundated with images that dictate how we are supposed to look at the world. I love how she is so contemporary with this issue.
What is the meaning of these words that we are willing to die to defend? Freedom? Liberty? Rights of Man?
      She lambasts an army general’s debonair suit by pointing out that in battle, soldiers do not wear finery. Woolf concludes that the regalia of uniforms is a lure to get young men to join the military. The suit does not tell the truth; uniforms are deceptive instruments to get people in the ranks, to fight the countries wars.
      Also, isn’t it interesting that Woolf questions giving the money to these different organizations? She challenges us to look at things from all the different points of view, preferably three. She has three newspapers on her desk. “Therefore if you want to know any facts about politics you must read at least three different papers, compare at least three different versions of the same fact, and come in the end to your own conclusion” (95). Woolf challenges the reader to think critically. Not to look merely at one source and form our opinion. We should have at least three sources about the same topic in front of us. Librarians probably agree; parts of this book could serve as an introduction to Library Science. How many times do I get letters in the mail asking for money? Do I ask myself the reasons behind their requests for money? Do I wonder why they really need the money in the first place? Woolf, I bet, surprises the honorary treasures by questioning their requests. Partly to get them to think about their situations and partly, for Woolf’s part, to answer the real questions.
Why does she attack H.G. Wells? I was surprised to see Wells included in this book; I didn’t think Woolf would go after a particular person in this polemic. But she does. She seems to see him as superficial. Wells obviously does not fight for the same principles as Woolf.
      We are not fighting for the rights of man or for woman. We should be rallying the cause of humanity; because, isn’t it, like Georges Sands says – “all beings are interdependent of one another”? Who of us can present ourselves as insulated, cut off from one another? Because we are a man? Because we are a woman? Most of our problems stem from the insistence on creating sharp distinctions between man/woman; free/slave; public/private. Maybe Woolf is calling for, in this book, is a common interest; “it is one world; one life” (142).
source: Woolf, Virginia,  Three Guineas.  Harcourt Brace. 1938, 1966. 

17.8.10

Gone Flat Land: Why XML Seems Promising

A nerdy post on library science and the future of library cataloging.
image credit: "Tempus Fugit" by abbeyprivate
This essay was written as a requirement for an introduction to cataloging course. An entry like this is not typical stones of erasmus fare, but I post it for all my library and cataloging buddies out there. I warn you, though, I made a C+ in Cataloging. I took the course as an online component. While I like the Reference and Information Services course I took online (which garnered me an A+) I found the Cataloging course online more challenging. My satisfactory grade is most likely attributable to my difficulty keeping up with deadlines, but I also found the assignments hard to conceptualize. Most catalogers use a cataloging application (e.g., Connexion) on a PC to create MARC records or to copy catalog. But, for this class, we had to use a generic MS word document to fill in the fields which I found to be terribly awkward. So, a word from the experienced: if you take an online class in cataloging make sure you have access to a good MARC program.
Anyway, here is my report on XML from a C+ point of view. Enjoy:

5.12.06

Book Review: Warmish-Cool Pleasure in As I Lay Dying


Image result for as i lay dying faulknerWilliam Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, is the archetypical quest story, one of the most satisfying and basic plots in the literary canon.
The Journey Story
William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, is the archetypical quest story, one of the most satisfying and basic plots in the literary canon. Like Homer’s The Odyssey, the pleasure of the quest narrative is in the process of the journey, not necessarily in the final outcome. We read a narrative like As I Lay Dying or The Odyssey to discover pleasure in the journey itself. It's this desire for the journey that makes a story about wandering heroes so appealing. For example, it is not a plot spoiler to find out prematurely that Odysseus slays the suitors and saves his wife and son. In fact, that's not the most exciting part of The Odyssey. It is about the becoming of the hero that is so enthralling. The pleasure of the journey quest is in the process of becoming. As Heraclitus, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher wrote, “One cannot step in the same river twice,” so also is As I Lay Dying a journey-process of becoming, albeit a macabre journey of a poor white family in Mississippi to bury their dead mother’s corpse.
The River as Metaphor for Story 
   In this post, I will explore how the madcap journey the Bundren family undertakes becomes, like an ever-changing river, a locus of pleasure in the narrative itself. I will show this using the tableau image of Darl drinking the water-filled gourd because the language and tone of this scene is inebriated with warmish cool water riddled with stars, as Darl describes it himself (8). I will then show how the narrative of the water-filled gourd is depicted as sensuous pleasure, the pleasure of the body and the readerly satisfaction of a wavelike release - in the story's end.
The Bundren Family and Their Motives
   Oddly enough, the disturbing nature of the story is what makes the novel pleasurable. The motives of every Bundren family member cannot be said to be of the highest moral value. Each and every one of the clan has their own motive: Anse, the father, Cash, the eldest, Jewel, Darl, Vardaman, the youngest, and even Addie, the dead mother, all have strange desires and motives. The fact that Cash, in the novel’s opening scene constructs his mother’s coffin, as she lays dying, in a place where she can obviously see and hear him, is sadistic and disturbing. Who would do this to their own mother? After her husband has gone to work and the last “dirty snuffling nose” had gone to school, what kind of mother would go to a quiet place so she “could be quiet and hate them?” (114). But this is the kind of pleasure that Faulkner is gesturing at in this novel. Cash derives pleasure from constructing the coffin, as is shown in a chapter that lists deliciously how he made the coffin on the bevel (53).  His reason?  “The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress come slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on a bevel” (53).
    This pleasure is what makes one reader say, “this book is so funny” and another reader to say, “this book is so sick!”   There is a voyeurism ingrained in the reader to want to find out more about this strange, poor family and what compels them to undertake their journey no matter how much you feel or think their journey is depraved.  The reader is interested in as many details as can be garnered that can aid in putting the narrative pieces together to understand the journey arc of the novel.  This is highly pleasurable.  Added to this is the structure of the novel itself.  It is told by a series of monologues written in a stream of consciousness style.  The reader puts together the pieces of the Bundren’s journey through the varied and limited mental states of the characters.  Being inside of the mind of a character provides pleasure, for it is a romp within the mental imagery of another “person”.    
Darl as the Central Character
    The character of Darl comprises many of the scenes in the book.  We are inside Darl’s mind, it seems, more than any other character.  Darl seems to be a logical character, but one notices that he takes too many “soft right angles.” There is something sinister in his immediacy with the world around him. Darl emphasizes an unmediated relationship to the world.  His conception of the world is dictated solely by sensuosity.  Although this will prove to be his demise into insanity, he finds pleasure in what he apprehends to be intuitively sensuous and tangible.  He is not interested as much in the concern and care for other human beings as long as they fit into his own sensuous relationship to reality.  For example, the scene with the water-filled gourd warrants how Darl’s sensuous response to things around him becomes a fixated locus of pleasure in the narrative arc of the story’s journey.
The Water-Filled Gourd
    Around the side of the house, the Bundrens have set a cedar bucket to allow water to sit.  It gives the water a sweet taste.  As the father Anse points out, water tastes sweetest when it has sat in a cedar bucket for at least six hours, not in metal.  It’s “warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells" (8).  Once the water has sat for a time, it is poured into a gourd.   
    What enhances the pleasure for the reader in this scene is how Faulkner situates the text within the narrative structure of the chapter.  We are inside Darl’s troubled head here. But we hear his father ask him, “Where’s Jewel?” (8). It is in the interstices of this question that Darl fantasizes about going to the water-filled gourd at night, stirred awake, to see the stars in the water inside the gourd, to be intoxicated into an erotic reverie.  But the text reverts back to reality.  Back to the scene where his father had asked him about Jewel’s whereabouts. The text brings us in and out of internal journeys into external journeys and out again and back again. This is what gives the novel a heightened sense of journey for the reader.  The pleasure of the text is not only Darl’s own bodily pleasure, but the text itself becomes an erogenous zone. The text is a sensuous locus of pleasure as well as the pleasure of the character Darl himself, despite Darl’s own descent into madness.